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August 23, 2019

‘We can’t give up on people:’ Workshop focuses on fighting drug epidemic

Credit: Cumberland Times-News, Teresa McMinn

CUMBERLAND — We can’t arrest our way out of the drug problems in Allegany and Garrett counties. That was one of the messages delivered at a workshop that focused on fighting the opioid and methamphetamine epidemic that plagues the area.

More than 120 people and 12 organizations attended the event, hosted by U.S. Rep. David Trone at the Western Maryland Health System auditorium on Thursday.

The workshop featured a panel of experts including Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center Executive Director Steve Schuh, Cumberland City Councilman Richard J. “Rock” Cioni, Bipartisan Policy Center Chief Medical Advisor Dr. Anand Parekh, Allegany County Director of Emergency Services James Pyles and Garrett County Health Department Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Coordinator Sadie Liller.

It was the second meeting on the topic Trone has hosted since being sworn into office, and took place on the first day of his two-day tour of Western Maryland to learn more about resources local communities need to help people suffering from addiction.

While the United States makes up 4.3% of the world, it consumes 82% of the world’s opioids, Trone said. “We are the biggest jailer in the world.”

Drugs including fentanyl often originate in China, then enter the U.S. via Mexico.

Trone said pharmaceutical companies knew years ago their products were addictive.

“We need to continue to fight them in court,” Trone said.

Overdose deaths

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70,200 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017, including illicit drugs and prescription opioids.

Like countless people across the country, Trone has a personal story about what addiction can do to a family. His 24-year-old nephew in 2016 was found dead from a fentanyl overdose. He was alone in a hotel room.

Trone was elected to the House of Representatives in November 2018 to serve the 6th District of Maryland. In Congress, he founded the Freshmen Working Group on Addiction, a bipartisan group of 64 freshmen lawmakers dedicated to ending the addiction epidemic in the country.

He is working with legislators from both sides of the political aisle to find a solution to the problem.

“It’s completely bipartisan,” Trone said of the effort.

“It’s hard to know what to do,” he said. “It really takes a holistic approach.”

Trone talked of having cancer last year.

“I got support,” he said. People with addiction disease, “we put them in jail.”

There needs to be greater focus on addiction’s connection to mental health and the criminal justice system, he said.

Finding funding

States must target funding to fight the disease, Trone said.

“We need the local folks to know where the money is,” he said.

A recent study identified 57 different funding streams to battle the epidemic, Parekh said.

The majority of federal funding goes to areas with the highest numbers of overdose deaths, he said and added treatment infrastructures need to be built in rural areas.

The stigma

Trone talked of resistance to train more medical professionals on how to address addiction.

The American Medical Association has “fought tooth and nail” on the issue, he said.

Roughly 80% of people addicted to opioids started with a doctor’s prescription, Parekh said.

While addiction is a chronic disease, some people, including physicians, aren’t prepared to seek treatment.

“The key word here is stigma,” Parekh said.

“This is not going away,” Cioni said. “(Science) has taught us it really is a brain illness.”

The killer 

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is driving overdose deaths, Pyles said.

It is being used more frequently to mix with other street drugs, including marijuana.

“It’s becoming more and more dangerous,” Schuh said, because the drug is being made more potent to improve its profits and increase effects. The result is often deadly for the user. “Very small quantities are all it takes.”

He highlighted the need to educate young people on the dangers of the drug.

“Fentanyl will kill you,” Schuh said.

‘Sober homes’

Recovery houses are key, Trone said and talked of Washington County’s Brooke’s House, a 16-bed, 8,300-square-foot facility for women recovering from alcohol and substance use disorders.

“It’s a real community success story,” he said.

Building such facilities can face challenges on the local level, however. In Baltimore County, for example, “sober homes” are prohibited by law, Schuh said.

Garrett County does not have a recovery house, Liller said.

Meth use

While the opioid problem has declined, methamphetamine use is on the rise in Garrett County. The drug is easy to get and many folks underestimate its danger, Liller said.

She talked of educational programs that stop youth from getting drugs. 

“Prevention is the key piece,” Liller said.

“We have to all work together to fight this problem,” she said. “We can’t give up on people.”

Alternative treatment

Allegany County resident Connie Otto is a retired registered nurse. She said people need to be taught that opioids should not be prescribed for pain.

Other methods such as acupuncture and massage therapy can help folks find relief. However, many insurance plans don’t cover such treatments, she said.

Hagerstown resident Donna Stork is a semi-retired registered nurse. She’s worked across the country in various hospital departments, including emergency rooms, intensive care units and detox programs.

“A lot of the people I’ve treated said the only way they felt normal was while they were on drugs,” she said. “If you can’t address that lack of normality, you can’t address the need for drugs.”